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Feature: The Arbor School Partnership

The Arbor School — a non-profit, independent elementary school that focuses on the development of intellect, character and creativity —celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2013.

A smaller but no less meaningful number, 2013 also marked the 4th year that The Arbor School and Marylhurst University's Department of Education have partnered on the Arbor Center for Teaching.

This partnership offers a two-year working apprenticeship for students earning their MA in Teaching. ACT student teachers learn pedagogy and theory in seminars and then directly apply those theories in the classroom — all the while building long-term relationships with licensed teachers, the students and one another.

A different philosophy of preparing teachers

Rooted within a philosophy of intentionality, research and self-renewal, the apprenticeship program differs drastically from conventional teacher placements. As the director and founder of The Arbor School, Kit Abel Hawkins, put it, "The bulk of the practicum is not offered in isolated observations with a six-week solo, but rather in two years in a classroom."

Part of the reason for ACT's two-year model is its emphasis on the developmental cycle.

"You teach developmentally appropriate material to children," Hawkins noted. "We think there is a developmental cycle in developing a teacher. We try to match what they're ready for and the ways that they can next lean in and take responsibility in the classroom.

"They're not just observers. They're truly participants from the start."

This two-year intensive approach situates the learning inside the classroom, rather than the university. Hawkins described the university as being "complementary" to the classroom. This is not to dismiss the importance of accredited, master-level coursework. Rather, it synthesizes the two; theory and experience inform one another simultaneously.

Research, refine, reinvent, revitalize

It is not surprising that the ACT apprenticeship program is driven by philosophy and pedagogy. Hawkins majored in philosophy in college. She always knew that she wanted to be a teacher, and she recognized that philosophy and intellectual history were invaluable methodologies with which to apply to education. Hawkins asked herself: "How have ideas been borne in the world?"

Hawkins integrates this thread of thought throughout the curriculum of The Arbor School, as well as the apprenticeship program. The acts of questioning, self-examination and reflection are made manifest most visibly in the Act and Research project that all apprentices are required to complete, in which they frame and pursue a question during their second year of teaching.

In the past, apprentices have asked such questions as "What kinds of structures can we set up that allow students to be more independent in their self-evaluative skills?" and "How can we create a democratic classroom and what kinds of protocols need to be established in order for that model to work?"

Through the Act and Research project, apprentices learn the value and real-world practice of learning from experience, gauging success and areas of improvement, and constantly evolving one's own teaching to better the classroom and the lives of students. All ideas and actions inform the next decision. Ask questions, collect information, make adaptations, repeat.

The overarching goal of this research-driven approach is to prepare apprentices as leaders in school communities. Hawkins admits that there are many systemic issues and problems within education, and they ought to be addressed and improved. Yet she eschews such words as "reform" and "change."

"People find those words threatening," Hawkins said. Instead she prefers the words "refinement," "reinvention," "re-envision" and "revitalize."

"I believe in a continuous refinement and reinvention of practice in order to meet the circumstances at hand," Hawkins said. "I don't think top-down reform efforts have made a substantial difference in instruction. But I do think that teachers and leaders need to be consistently thinking about the same research questions: How is the institution doing? Where are we not succeeding with individual or groups of children? How can we refresh our practice?

"That mindset of not being satisfied, of always being a little restless in your practice, of constantly hypothesizing, testing, and adjusting—that comes to be the heart of your teaching practice."

In theory, this mindful practice enters classrooms, schools and districts all over Oregon and across the country as apprentices graduate and receive placements. It is a perspective that the apprentices take with them, reinventing their respective classrooms for the better.

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